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Judge approves $9.5-million settlement in Calgary Stampede sex abuse lawsuit

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A judge has approved a $9.5-million settlement for complainants in a class action lawsuit that accused the Calgary Stampede of allowing a performance school staffer to sexually abuse young boys. 

The agreement is related to the case of Philip Heerema, who received a 10-year prison sentence in 2018 after pleading guilty to charges including sexual assault, sexual exploitation, child pornography and luring. 

Heerema admitted he used his position with the Young Canadians School of Performing Arts — which performs each year in the Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show — to lure and groom six boys into sexual relationships between 2005 and 2014, as well as in 1992. 

Justice Paul Jeffrey praised the young men who came forward and said the settlement was a fair one but does not right the wrongs that the Stampede allowed to occur.

"This is evidence of the pervasive breadth and effect of the evils of one person," Jeffrey said. "All of the pain, conflict and re-traumatizaion because of one person, but similarly what always gives the court hope is that it took one person to come forward.

"A few people came forward, spoke truth to power and enabled the justice system to engage and enabled the law to do its work," he added.

"I commend those who had the courage to do that and commend those from the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede for being here in person and expressing the genuine abhorrence you share in what happened. That also gives the court hope.

"It perhaps goes without saying, but the settlement is approved," he said, continuing. "I do find it fair and reasonable in these circumstances based on the evidence and didn't see any reason why it wouldn't satisfy that definition.

"I approve it, I find service to be good and sufficient."

The 39 members in the class-action suit will each receive between $500 and $200,000.

Twenty per cent of the money will be held in trust for any other complainants who come forward.

Carsten Jensen,  who represented the complainants, said he hoped the settlement would bring some sense of closure for the victims.

"We hope to bring finality to this case and that it's a new beginning and a new future for the next generation of young Canadians," Jensen said.

"We also hope it's the beginning of a new future for the class members, many of whom have been severely impacted by Heerema and the failure of the Stampede to protect them."

Heerema admitted he used his position with the Young Canadians to lure and groom six boys into sexual relationships between 2005 and 2014, as well as in 1992.

Heerema, who was named in the class action, was granted day parole in January and admitted during his hearing that there were other victims who did not come forward.

There are about 300 plaintiffs that could be eligible for some of the money.

Jensen said the bulk of the settlement will go to about two dozen individuals who were more seriously impacted by their experiences with Heerema.

“There will be a point system established based on the relative harm and the remaining funds will be distributed to the most harmed members in accordance with that point system"

'Not proportionate'

The Stampede has promised to introduce programs including trauma-informed youth and program leadership for staff, but several victims said the Stampede hadn't done enough.

"$9.5 million is not proportionate to the impact this had to me and my friends in the Young Canadians," said one victim in a statement he hoped to read in court. "The Stampede has deferred accountability and dragged this on for so many years, some class members have lost the will to live.

"To me, the Stampede has received the bulk discount for turning a blind eye to child abuse for decades.

"The statements and agreements online make it clear that the Calgary Stampede insurance companies are the ones paying the $9.5 million."

"This is not the Calgary Stampede taking accountability for their mistakes," he said. "The Calgary Stampede is deferring to their insurance companies to foot the bill.

"The Calgary Stampede should top up the amount to show the community they are taking full accountability."

Timeline

A second victim, who supported the settlement, criticized the length of time it took to reach it.

"As one of the early individuals who came forward in 2012, my involvement has been deeply personal and profoundly painful. Due to long legal proceedings spanning a decade, I was required to revisit my trauma and repeatedly faced revictimization, deepening the hurt and delaying my own healing journey," he said.

"The constant delays and the endless wait for justice have left me and other victims in a state of limbo, where closure seems impossible," he continued. "Despite the severity of his actions, Heerema has been released back into the community, a stark reminder of how unresolved this situation remains for so many of us."

"The Calgary Stampede was such a huge part of my life," he added, "and this time of year reminds me of the deep pain and the harm the Stampede's decades of inaction caused the community.

"The Calgary Stampede must recognize the deep, lasting impact of this case in our lives. The settlement offers a chance for us to begin the healing process and move forward with our lives.

"This situation also highlights the urgent need for legal reforms, such as timely proceedings, victim-centred approaches, and trauma-informed practices, to prevent revictimization and ensure justice for all survivors. I urge all parties involved to act with the urgency and compassion this situation demands, allowing me and so many others to finally find the closure we need to heal."

'Deeply sorry'

Cory Ryan, a laywer for the Stampede, said the organization was deeply sorry.

"The thrust of our defence was predicated on the fact that no policy, safeguards or practices would have allowed us to stop the covert actions of Mr. Heerema," he said. "He acted outside of the scope of his employment, safeguards and policies established by the Stampede.

"We appreciate that this ($9.5-million) settlement does not right the wrongs, but we hope this helps class members seek treatment, heal and move forward with their lives."

"The Stampede defendants are deeply sorry," he added. "We acknowledge that we failed class members and accept responsibility for the harm suffered.

"Since 2014, we've made operational changes that focus on wellness and caring. They are monitored and reviewed regularly by third-party experts. We are establishing trauma-informed training and youth serving programs.

"We thank the class members for driving institutional change and for making sure this never happens again."

With files from The Canadian Press

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